This post answers some frequently answered questions about Mardi Gras in New Orleans as well as Carnival Season in general.
You can also find videos and links to further content to help you plan your time in New Orleans for this uniquely New Orleans festive season.
One thing to get clear, Mardi Gras and Carnival are more than just Bourbon St
What is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras literally translates into English as “Fat Tuesday” and it is the culmination of the Carnival season. It is a predominantly Catholic celebration that begins on January 6th, also known as Epiphany and represents when the Magi reached the Christ child. Mardi Gras Day was first observed in Louisiana on March 2, 1699, by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville near what is now Baton Rouge.
When is Mardi Gras?
The Catholic church set Easter to coincide with the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox. Mardi Gras is scheduled forty-seven days before Easter and can occur on any Tuesday from February 3rd through March 9th. Some upcoming dates are listed below.
- February 25, 2020
- February 16, 2021
- March 1, 2022
What are King Cakes?
In New Orleans, King cakes are sweet circular treats covered in colorful icing. The current incarnation of the King cake seems to have evolved in both Spain and France.
During the Middle Ages, it came to be associated with Epiphany. Cakes were sometimes distributed to peasants by the lord of a manor.
Today, cakes are baked with a trinket inside, usually, a plastic baby said to represent the Christ child. The person that gets the slice with the baby inside must bring the cake next year.
TIP: A free slice of King Cake is included with every tour of Mardi Gras World!
What are Mardi Gras Balls?
Mardi Gras Balls are parties in the grandest of traditions, dating back to the 1850s. They are hosted by Krewes or social organizations and trend towards exclusivity, focusing on tradition and social order. They are black-tie affairs with men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns. They usually mark the announcement of the King and Queen for that particular Krewe. Most of these are members-only functions though some sell tickets to the public.
What are Krewes?
Krewes are social organizations responsible for hosting the various Balls and parades that take place during carnival season. The Krewe of Rex; for example, is the King of carnival and on Mardi Gras day the keys of the city are turned over to him. The city belongs to revelry. Schools and banks are closed though bars and restaurants stay open to nourish the crowds. Krewes were traditionally all male but now are coed as well as inter-generational. There are many krewes of New Orleans each with its own parade. A schedule of the parades and Mardi Gras/Carnival events can be found by clicking the link. Enjoying a parade is one of the best free things to do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
What are throws and how do you get them?
It is believed that Rex threw the first glass beads circa the 1920s. The glass beads have now been replaced with plastic ones. In addition to the iconic beads, each parade tosses coins called doubloons, stamped with the logo of that Krewe as well as specialized throws. These specialized throws are coveted. From the coconuts of Zulu to the decorated shoes of the all-female Krewe of Muses, there is something for everyone. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to “flash” anything to get beads or other throws. You do want to draw attention to yourself with a costume that somehow stands out or signage to attract those on passing floats.
What is Flambeaux?
Flambeaux is plural for flambeau. It means "flaming torch". Before the city had adequate lighting, nighttime parades needed to provide their own light source via torchbearers. They were originally wooden sticks, wrapped in pine-tar rags and lit on fire. They were carried by slaves or free men of color. They began as a way to light the parades but the men started to twirl and dance with them so that they became their own art form. Crowds threw coins as tips. The first appearance of the flambeaux tradition occurred during the 1857 Mystick Krewe of Comus parade. Today the tradition continues with natural gas burning lanterns. It is still customary to tip but preferably with dollars instead of coins.
What are Mardi Gras Indians?
It is no secret that early Mardi Gras Krewes were all white and rigidly segregated. If you were black, it was easy to feel as though the carnival excluded you. Mardi Gras Indians are a somewhat secret society that formed to include this often excluded group in the festivities. They first popped up after the Wild West Show visited New Orleans in 1884 and their costumes are heavily influenced by the dress of Native Americans in the plains region of the United States.
They hand-make their elaborate costumes anew each year and they can weigh as much as 150 pounds. The tradition incorporates an homage to local native tribes that sheltered runaway slaves in the early days of the colony but they also utilize the beading tradition of such African tribes as the Yoruba. If you need a break from the madness of Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras Day, then the Black Indians can be seen gathering in front of the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Treme neighborhood.
Is Mardi Gras family-friendly?
The simple answer is it can be but it is best to keep the family away from the French Quarter and Canal street. The uptown or upriver areas afford a more family-friendly atmosphere for viewing the parades. It is best to stake a spot out early as the parade routes fill up quickly. Dress the kids in elaborate costumes to increase the chances for better throws. Set up a potential rendezvous spot should you become separated. You will potentially be on the parade route for hours so pack accordingly. Snacks, water, sunscreen, lots of toilet paper, wet wipes, paper towels, bandages, and rain gear. It is also a good idea to wear closed-toe shoes. So take the family and enjoy the festivities.
You might want to take the family to Family Gras. It is located in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. It takes place on the “neutral ground” or median of Veterans Memorial Boulevard across from the Lakeside Shopping Center. There will be a concert, food vendors, parades, art market and even a kid zone.
Also in Metairie, the Krewe of Little Rascals rolls from the corner of Eldorado Street and Woodlawn Avenue and ends at Veterans and Behman avenue. The Krewe was founded in 1983 and is the only Mardi Gras Krewe consisting solely of children. Ages range from 2 to 18. It gives kids a chance to feel included in what can often seem like just adult fun.
If you're going with the family, you might want to consider taking a Mardi Gras tour which covers some of the history behind this event.
In addition to all the details you'll learn, this tour also includes admission to both Mardi Gras World and a Mardi Gras Museum!
Check out the handy New Orleans Kids' family guide to Mardi Gras.
What are the colors of Mardi Gras?
Purple, green, and gold are the colors of Mardi Gras. They were first chosen by the Krewe of Rex (the King of Carnival) in 1872. Purple is for justice. Green is for faith. Gold is for power.
How to party like a local?
Much could be written under this paragraph, such as familiarizing yourself with parade routes and road closures, but the main thing to remember is to pace yourself. Mardi Gras day starts early in the morning and locals go hard all day but locals know it is a marathon, not a race. Get up early and indulge in a hearty breakfast before the cocktails start flowing and don't forget to pack snacks to help manage the alcohol intake throughout the day.
Bathrooms are hard to come by and the lines are long, so keep that in mind. Public urination is against the law. Chances are you will have to use one of the portable bathrooms so take toilet tissue and hand sanitizer. It is a good idea to write down the name and address of your hotel to help you better negotiate your way back if you overindulge.
Parking is non-existent in and around the French Quarter as well as on the parade routes, so leave the car at your hotel. Traffic will be congested. Give yourself plenty of time. Our police officers LOVE Mardi Gras too but if they tell you to do something then it is best to listen. We want you to have a safe and enjoyable time.
What to wear?
Costume! Costume! Costume! The more creative you are the better your chances of scoring the good throws. Be political. Be satirical. Be sexy. Be fun. There are plenty of places throughout the city to help you create a signature look. Need a wig? Check out Fifi Mahoney’s at 934 Royal Street in the French Quarter. Funrock’n at 1125 Decatur street has costumes and accessories for those looking to build on their idea. The key to remember is that you can't really go wrong. New Orleans encourages creativity so push the limits a bit and have fun. Don't forget that it is best to wear comfortable closed-toe shoes and plan for weather extremes. Click here for more places to shop for costumes.